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Great Lakes Article:

Feds take aim at fish-eating cormorants

January 10, 2002

BY ERIC SHARP
Detroit Free Press

January 17, 2001

Some years ago, a biologist told me his fish hatchery had a federal permit to kill 50 of the hundreds of sea gulls that raided the place and ate tens of thousands of fish each year.

Just inside the door were a 12-gauge shotgun and a case of about 1,000 shotgun shells. I joked that if they needed all those shells to kill 50 sea gulls, the hatchery workers must be pretty poor shots.

The biologist smiled and said, "Oh, we're good shots. We just don't count very well."

That incident came to mind when I received a copy of a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service draft environmental impact statement on the problems that double-crested cormorants are causing on the Great Lakes and other waters.

Buried in a mass of bureau-speak is an admission that the big, fish-eating birds are having a deleterious effect on food and game-fish populations in some areas. The feds also admit that Michigan and other Great Lakes states should be allowed to reduce the cormorant numbers in places where they are doing damage.

Individuals wouldn't be allowed to kill them, but state, federal and Indian tribe wildlife officers would get permits to reduce cormorant numbers in places like northern Lake Huron and Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

The double-crested cormorant is a large, black, hook-billed bird. It is an effective underwater predator that eats about a pound of fish a day and prefers them in the five- to eight-inch range. How many cormorants live on the Great Lakes is open to question. The Fish and Wildlife Service says there were only 89 nesting pairs on the lakes in 1970, but that number had soared to 93,000 pairs by 1997. For every nesting pair there are an average of two more young adult birds that don't nest, putting the 1997 total at about 372,000.

The average annual population growth since 1997 has been 7.9 percent, a big slowdown from the 29 percent rate of the 1980s. Using that figure, we get a 2001 Great Lakes cormorant population of about 504,000. At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service says that about 1.2 million of the nation's 2 million double-crested cormorants live on the Great Lakes and in central Canada.

People who oppose killing cormorants say 98 percent of the fish they eat aren't species that humans use for food or sport. But that ignores the fact that if you have enough cormorants, even 1 percent is a lot, and in some places they take a far bigger percentage of game fish than the average would suggest.

If we use a rough figure of 500,000 cormorants on the Great Lakes, they would eat more than 75 million pounds of fish in the five to six months they spend here. That seems like a lot, but it's only a tiny fraction of the fish consumed by salmon, bass, walleyes and other fish.

But if you get a large concentration of cormorants in one small area, like the 10,000 estimated to nest around Beaver Island, you can run into problems with sportfish species.

The Beaver Island area, northwest of Petoskey, used to offer spectacular fishing for smallmouth bass, but a couple of years ago residents and visitors noticed an odd and disturbing phenomenon: You still could catch big smallmouths, 12 inches or longer, but smallies under 10 inches were rare.

A 2-year-old smallmouth bass in Lake Michigan is about six inches long and six ounces in weight, the size that cormorants love. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that 10,000 cormorants feeding around the islands soon will make a major dent in the bass population. If each bird ate only two six-inch bass a week, by the end of the summer they would have downed about 500,000 of the undersized game fish.

Something similar happened around the Les Cheneaux Islands in northern Lake Huron, where perch fishing, the butter on the bread of the tourism industry, has fallen off dramatically. Locals have complained for years that a huge increase in double-crested cormorants was responsible.

People I know in the Fish and Wildlife Service say the big problem in dealing with cormorants, or any other animal that becomes a nuisance, is that the agency bends to pressure from animal rights groups and others who oppose killing wildlife. The groups are small but well organized, while anglers are not. (People usually become anglers to get away from their organized daily lives.)

It's no accident that the only groups allowed federal permits to kill cormorants are state fish hatcheries and commercial fish farms. They also are well organized, have political clout and can put even more pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service than those who want to protect cormorants.

It would be a mistake to try to blame cormorants for all the ills that befall sportfishing. We humans are responsible for far more damage to the Great Lakes than cormorants could ever do. But it makes sense for the feds to allow the states and tribes to kill a relatively small number of an abundant exotic species and see if it makes a difference in the fish populations the states and tribes are trying to protect.

The Fish and Wildlife Service held a public meeting on the cormorant issue Tuesday night in Mackinaw City, a time of year when the town's population is at a low ebb. On the off-chance you didn't have the time to drive five hours each way from Detroit on a weekday evening, you have until Tuesday to send written comments on the cormorant debate by e-mail to cormorantcis@fws.gov, by fax to 703-358-2272, or by mail to Division of Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Room 634, Arlington, Va. 22203.

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